Conspiracy Theory in International Relations

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Although conspiracy theories have been around since the beginning of time, they are often more a topic for lunchtime curiosities rather than a focus of research programmes in International Relations. Recent events have made it difficult to ignore the connection between world politics and conspiracy theories. In recent years, conspiracy rhetoric has been prominent in the public speeches of world leaders, especially populists such as Trump, Erdogan Bolsonaro Orban and Putin. Conspiracy theory has been used in online disinformation campaigns to target elections and influence perceptions of international crises. Conspiracy theories have also been identified as a key aspect of radicalisation, violent extremism and radicalisation. In the following, I will first outline three broad approaches for the study of conspiracy theory that have emerged mainly OUTSIDE of IR and which will be helpful to understand their international political dimension. I then want to highlight some of the challenges that new research must overcome in this area.

The common sense understanding of conspiracy theory – the one that springs to mind in corridor chats and furnishes newspaper op-eds – takes its cue from Richard Hofstadter’s (1964) famous essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’. This view recurs that conspiracy theories are the delusions of outlying figures. It is a quasi medical diagnosis of paranoia (Aistrope, 2016a). Hofstadter had a much more nuanced view that is still relevant to contemporary scholarship. His account can be best understood through a liberal criticism of populism. In his writings, he attempted to defend a normal politics ideal based on compromise, bargaining, and deliberation against a resurgent extreme right movement which, amongst other claims, accused the political establishment of Soviet infiltration (Bratich, 2008). Hofstadter argued a resentful state of anxiety in response rapid social and economic changes in the post-war years was the engine for this way to think, which has appeared regularly in American history in times of great uncertainty.

Hofstadter believed that such views were at the fringes of political discourse. In times of economic hardship, populists demagogues fuel fears and fuel a suspicious, distorted worldview that is filled with villains, and their evil plots. In these circumstances, populism with a conspiracy-laden tone could infiltrate the public square and undermine liberal democracy’s sober practices. The paranoid style tradition has been the subject of sustained critique over the last twenty years, not least for its lack of analytical clarity about what constitutes a conspiracy theory and the suspicion that it often amounts to ad hominem dismissal – more on this later (Dean 2000a, 2000b; Goshorn 2000;Pratt 2003). There is still much to be said about this. Indeed, Hofstadter’s observations about status anxiety, demagogues, and the suspicion of elites seems of renewed relevance.

A second approach, which is less familiar to IR scholars, shows that conspiracy theory is a more common phenomenon in political culture than one might expect. The current circumstances make conspiracy theories more understandable than the fringe beliefs of deluded narcissists (Aistrope, 2016b; Mason, 2002; Marcus, 1999). Here, the global scale and complexity, as well as the pervasive secretiveness of the national-security state, are read in relation to the historical reality, which is a history of elite malfeasance. Contextualising sci fi literature and films Three Days of the CondorYou can also find out more about the following: The Parallax View, Friedrich Jameson (1991) positioned conspiracy theory as ‘a degraded attempt… to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system’. Drawing on Kevin Lynch’s account of alienation in the modern city, he argued that conspiracy theory is ‘the poor person’s cognitive mapping’, which stands in for a coherent view of the whole that is no longer possible (Jameson 1988).

Jameson explains in a useful way, two different strains of research on conspiracy theories that have emerged in the last 20 years. On the other hand, researchers have focused their attention on the extent to the which conspiracy theory can be a crude yet productive aspect of populism that identifies structural injustices and systemic hypocrisies which may well feel orchestrated. The idea that a system is rigged has the power to galvanize activism, despite the inaccuracy of the details and the potential for vilification. Researchers have become increasingly aware of the proliferation of conspiracy narratives in popular culture portrayals about politics and international relations. (Nelson, 2003; Jones, 2008, 2012; Der Derian, 2009). Here, widespread cynicism regarding the machinations and manipulations of powerful elites is intertwined with speculation, irony, and rumours, gossips, urban legends, and other forms in everyday reckonings about global affairs (Birchall, 2006; Jones, 2010; Fluck, 2016). 

A third approach centres on the extent to which the term ‘conspiracy theory’ – and the discourse associated with it – delegitimises criticism of elite power and secures the political status quo. Here the identification of a ‘conspiracy theory’ directs attention away from the substance of a specific claim and towards the social-psychological competency of the person making it (Hustings and Orr 2007; Bratich 2008; Goshorn 2000). This delegitimising impact is strongest in the first account, where the link with paranoia seems to be particularly strong. This is made easier by the widespread definitional ambiguity, which allows claims about trans-dimensional overlords or faked lunar expeditions to be read alongside corporate corruption claims or secret assassination programs. These dynamics are particularly important in the international political context where controversial events like terrorist attacks, coup d’états, false flag actions, and covert interventions – all recurring features of the historical record – are the subject of contested real-time interpretation (Aistrope and Bleiker 2018; Zwizerlein and De Graff 2013; Kiik 2020). The process of establishing or failing to establish an authoritative account within and across interpretative groups can be as dependent on power relations as on the assessment of information, which is often withheld due to national-security imperatives.

These three approaches offer IR scholars different ways to study the conspiracy theory. Each approach focuses on certain aspects of the conspiracy discourse, and each has its own limitations. The paranoid-style tradition offers insights into how populists mobilise conspiracy narratives, and how they gain traction among a broader constituency (see Wojczewski 2021). This approach, however, too often pathologizes their subjects and dismisses out of hand the political content of certain claims. This tendency is magnified in the international context of politics, where researchers almost always cross cultural horizons.

At its worst, the identification and attribution of conspiracy thinking to foreign leaders maps onto an imaginary geopolitical world in which the rational international community is confused by the irrational policy of rogue countries (Aistrope, 2016b). White House (2006), for example, identified the culture of misinformation and conspiracy in the Muslim world as a significant driver of radicalisation. Every political discourse contains wrong views. However, the association between entire regions, cultures, and religions with problematic ideation intersects long-standing Orientalist tropes, which have been the subject to extensive criticism (Aistrope 2016,a).

The second approach is more likely to take the political content of conspiracy theories and their wider context seriously. However, there are still important questions about whether some conspiracy narratives should be ignored. There is a strong argument that racist conspiracy theories cannot be salvaged and that it is not worth salvaging a grain or two of political insight. This is especially true if the outcome is positive. In the third approach that focuses on power and knowledge, it is important to distinguish between competing conspiracy stories. There are many insights to be gained about the production and dissemination of foreign policy knowledge. This is especially true around times of crisis and controversy. However, focusing on how narratives operate within a discursive space risks treating them all as equally valid.

The opaque and contested nature of international politics limits the evidence available. This does not mean that we should abandon the task of evaluating claims. To begin, it is helpful to distinguish between conspiracy narratives which are part of an ideology or worldview and those which are self-contained and address specific circumstances (Schindler, 2020). The former are susceptible of motivated thinking and are often resistant to criticism, whereas the latter can be rigorously analyzed on their own terms.

One theme that links all these approaches together is a recurring concern with the international – both in terms of the circumstances that drive conspiracy thinking and the content of conspiracy theories themselves. Although a growing body of IR scholarship draws from these resources, it remains a rich, under-explored area of research. It should be of interest to those working at intersections of popular culture and global politics.


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